Friday, September 16, 2016

Book review: "Overboard!" by Michael J. Tougias

When Ron Burd stepped onto the sailboat Almeisan in Bridgeport, Connecticut, he was hoping for a bit of "heavy weather" on the trip that he and four others were about to make to Bermuda.

Burd, 70, was one of three volunteer crew members who had signed up for the voyage led by Captain Tom Tighe. Burd wanted to learn all he could about "blue-water" sailing from Tighe and first mate Lochlin Reidy so he could do his own trip to Bermuda some day.

Burd got his heavy weather -- and then some. Four days into the 2005 voyage, the Almeisan was engulfed in a massive storm. Tighe and Reidy were hurled into the water to fight for their lives, while Burd, Chris Ferrer, and Kathy Gilchrist remained aboard a damaged sailboat on the verge of sinking.

And so begins the drama in another of  Michael J. Tougias' page-turning stories of maritime disaster. I've read two of Tougias' previous books -- "Fatal Forecast" and "A Storm to Soon" -- and "Overboard!" matches both of them in intensity and drama. If you're looking for a story to become absorbed in, any of these books will provide an immersion experience.

Like the other books, Tougias interviewed all the participants in the Almeisan episode -- not just the crew, but Coast Guard rescuers as well. Armed with ample material, he is able to recreate scenes with remarkable details and precision. It's no exaggeration to say you feel like you're there.

I was impressed by the tenacity and ingenuity of the sailors as they faced increasingly desperate situations. When the main radio dies, Ferrer rewires it to a different circuit on the ship's electrical system. When that doesn't work, he starts disassembling a large rechargeable flashlight in hopes of using that. But before he's done with that, Gilchrist searches the ship and locates a spare battery that brings the radio alive. They do all this while their sailboat is being violently tossed around by the seas.

I don't want to give away too many details of the story and spoil it, but "Overboard!" takes some turns you won't expect. There's also some humor near the end when one survivor gets his first opportunity to eat after a harrowing 28-hour struggle in the seas.


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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Floating the Boise River -- tips and tricks

Floating down the Boise River can be a fun way to spend a summer day in Idaho's capital city. It can also be a pretty chilly, and possibly scary, experience if you're not prepared.

At its heart, floating the river in an inflatable tube or boat is one of the simplest leisure activities. Pretty much all you have to do, really, is lay there as the river carries you along. But to do it right you have to plan carefully.

When my family and I floated the Boise River in late July 2016 we did some things right and some wrong. Here are some tips so you can learn from our mistakes:

What's it like? 

Climb onto your tube or boat and the river takes you away. I found the current swifter than I expected. I don't know what the actual speed was, but we were moving faster than walkers on the riverside paths. Only near the end did it slow down to a more sedate "lazy river" pace.

You only have to paddle occasionally to turn your craft or to stay with other members of your group. If you're all on separate tubes, as we were, you can occasionally get separated from each other. It can take a little extra paddling to get everyone back together.

There are several small "waterfalls" on the route, though don't get freaked by that term. They're fun falls, not Niagara Falls. At first, all you hear is a vague rumble coming from down the river. You see that you're approaching some frothing whitewater, but you can't really tell what you'll be going over. That can make you nervous! But when you get there, it's a short, swift chute, like a playground slide.

In some spots, the river splits to go around a small island. When you encounter this, it's usually best to try to pick the deeper channel, otherwise you may run aground on rocks.

The river is pretty and lined with trees the whole way. Along with walkers or runners on nearby paths, we also saw a handful of fishermen.

Where do you start? 

Start at Barber Park on the east side of Boise and ride the river six miles to Ann Morrison Park in downtown. There is $3-a-person shuttle that runs between the parks. We paid for the shuttle at Barber Park and they gave me receipt that I kept dry in my pocket inside a plastic baggie. You can't really extend the distance in either direction because of dams on the river. You could pull out earlier than Ann Morrison Park if you've planned ahead for some kind of car shuttle.

How long does it take?

It took us about two and a half hours.We only stopped for one short break. Your time will depend in part on the speed of the river, which will slow as the water volume falls during the summer.

Tube or boat?

You can float the Boise River in an inflatable tube or inflatable boat. We chose to float in tubes that we had bought at Big 5 for just $12 each. This was pretty simple and inexpensive, but it had some disadvantages. First, the water was REALLY cold, and with the tubes we had we were sitting in the water basically the whole time. Even though the air temperature was in the 90s, we got uncomfortably chilled.

We also hit our butts on some rocks, though nothing too bad. You learn to lift your butt in low-water spots. 

And sitting in a tube for a long time can get uncomfortable. I eventually flopped over onto my stomach, which was a nice change, but that position too will get uncomfortable after a while. I'm not sure whether sitting in an inflatable boat would necessarily be more comfortable since we didn't try that.

Sitting in a boat will keep you out of the chilly water and you might even be able to bring some beverages and snacks. On the other hand, if it's a hot day, sitting in a boat might not cool you off enough. You might wish you were in the water.

A nice compromise would be to use a tube with a "floor" -- a cover for the hole so you're not totally sitting in the water and your rear end is somewhat protected from the rocks.

Rent or bring your own?

You can rent many inflatables at Barber Park, including the tubes with a floor. That's pretty convenient and they will include life jackets at no extra charge. They inflate the craft for you, too.

Buying and bringing your own would probably be cheaper in the long run since you can, of course, keep your inflatable for future swimming or floating trips. .

If you bring your own tubes or boat, you'll have to inflate them yourself.  Barber Park is nicely set up for that with a whole row of free air pumps.

Get life jackets?

We didn't get life jackets, and we survived without any problems. Nor did we see anyone in trouble. Still, in retrospect, I think we should have brought them. For one thing, the river is moving pretty fast into logs or branches at the side of the river unexpectedly. If one person got in some kind of trouble, it would be tough for anyone else in the group to help, because they'd have to fight the river's current to get back upstream.

Take a break?

I'd recommend taking at least one break along the way to stretch out and perhaps warm in the sun. There are some small "beaches" along the shore.  We waited too long to take a break and by that time we were all pretty chilled.

What to wear?

Wear a swimsuit or something else that you don't mind getting wet. Also wear some kind shoes -- I wore old running shoes. I'd suggest the shoes be closed-toes to protect yourself from rocks.

What do you do with your stuff?

We left all our clothes in our car at Barber Park. But what do you do with your keys? I was afraid of the electronic key fob getting wet if I carried them along on the float, and also of just flat losing the keys in the river.

My solution was crude but simple. I hid the keys under the lip of car's bumper. It worked. I'm not sure you want to try the same thing, but you should think about what you'll do before you head out.

When should you go?

I'd pick the hottest possible day because the water is so cold. I would also pick a day later in the summer when the river slows down a bit.


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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How to set a default browser when Windows 10 won't let you

Microsoft wants to force you to use its products in Windows 10. So it can make it very difficult to set you default browser to anything but Internet Explorer or Microsoft Edge.

I didn't want either of those, but found it difficult to change. Here's what worked for me:

1. Click on the Windows start icon on the bottom left.

2. Click on Settings -- the gear-like icon

3. Click on "System"

4. Click on "Default Apps"

5. On right side, scroll to the bottom and click on "Set Defaults by App"

6. Click on the browser you want, such as Chrome or Firefox

7. At the bottom, click on "Set this program as default."

Worked for me!


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Friday, August 12, 2016

Hike to Louie Lake near McCall, Idaho

Louie Lake
Louie Lake is a pretty alpine lake hidden in the mountains of central Idaho. It's a nice reward at the end of a modest hike that starts near the town of McCall. You might want to bring a lunch to eat on the shore of the lake, or if you dare, plunge into the lake's chilly waters.

The hike to Louie Lake is around four and half miles round-trip -- not terribly long, but be aware that the route in is a steady uphill climb, some of it steep. You gain about 1,500 feet in elevation in all.

Some online guides say this trail can be a hard to follow. That's not really true, as long as you stick to a simple rule: Just keeping going up. 

Driving in, the last five miles or so are on a winding dirt road. At the parking area, you'll find the Louie Lake trailhead toward the right end (as you arrive). There is a sign for the trail, so don't assume you've found the trail if you don't see it marked. If you immediately cross a creek on a log "bridge," you're on the right trail.

Key point: When you hit a fire road (logging road?), follow it uphill. Do NOT cross the road and follow the trail down on the other side. Stick to the road.

Soon after that, you will see a crudely painted sign pointing Louie Lake hikers to the right. My first instinct when I saw this was to take a 90-degree turn right and follow a trail down. That's wrong. Just slightly tilt to the right side of the road at the sign and continue to go up. Stay on the road.

Have fun!


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Friday, July 22, 2016

Book review: "From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler"

I first heard of the book, "From  the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" somewhere around third grade. But it wasn't until I was well into my 50s that I read it for the first time, aloud, to my two kids.

I'd always had the impression that this was a fun, and funny, book. I mean "mixed-up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" sounds silly right off the bat, right? So I was surprised how serious the book is. Author E.L. Konigsburg uses the story about two kids who run away to live in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to make some serious points about growing up.

The premise seems rather kooky. A sister and brother run away from home to live at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. They avoid the guards by hiding in the bathrooms and manage to get locked in each night. I kept hoping for some "Night at the Museum"-type craziness to happen after hours, but the only thing that came close was when they bathed in the fountain at the darkened museum restaurant..

Instead, Claudia and Jamie find themselves looking into a mystery: Is a sculpture called Angel really the work of Michelangelo? Their investigation pushes the story ahead, and takes them eventually into, yes, the mixed-up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Konigsburg does well developing the interaction of Claudia and Jamie and you can see them maturing in the story. Mrs. Frankweiler helps them understand the meaning of their quest.

Still, I don't know if the story is really interesting enough for young readers.  There's no real danger and the surprises are fairly mild. It sticks to a fairly narrow story line following the daily lives of Claudia and Jamie. And the character of Claudia, who is bossy and nitpicks her brother's grammar, rubbed my daughter the wrong way. She called Claudia "annoying."


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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Tap cards expire and Metro won't refund your money

As I entered the Civic Center subway stop in Los Angeles a few nights ago, I pulled out my wallet as I always do. My wallet contains my Tap Card, the "ticket" that stores money for using Los Angeles Metro rail lines.

All I have to do -- and I've done it well over a thousand times -- is slap my wallet on the Tap Card circle as you enter the station's gates and the turnstiles unlock.

But on this day something different happened. I tapped my wallet and pushed the turnstiles -- and they did not move. Huh?  I tapped again, and again the turnstiles remained locked. An adjacent screen read, "Card is expired."

"Tap Cards expire?" That was what almost everybody said when I told them this story. Just like me, few of my train-riding friends knew that Tap Cards have an expiration date. How would you know? There's no expiration date on the card.

Indeed, Tap Cards do expire, although I still have no idea why. I spoke to two Metro representatives and neither could tell me.

The problem, in my case, was that I still had $35 stored on my card. What to do?
I called and asked Metro:

Could I go to a Metro ticket machine and transfer the money to a new Tap card? No.

Could I transfer the money online at the Metro's "TaptoGo" website? No.

Could they transfer the money to a new card and mail it to me? No.

Could they refund my money? No. (I don't see how that's legal.)

The one and only option was to buy a new Tap Card for $1 at a machine and then call Metro back and transfer the dollars from the old card to the new one. Keep in mind that every call to Metro requires a minimum of 10 minutes on hold.

Also, since I am part of an employer plan that pays half the cost of riding public transit, I will have to call the administrator of the plan and get my new card entered into their system.

One very inconvenient option. It's almost as if Metro wants people to give up on the money they have on their old cards -- and maybe they do. It turns out that millions of dollars goes unused on old Tap Cards, and that amounts to pure profit for Metro.

I guess that's why Tap Cards expire.


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Friday, June 17, 2016

Book review: "Shark Tank -- Secrets to Success"

"Shark Tank -- Secrets to Success" is a fun book for fans of the ABC TV show "Shark Tank."

The book gives you the back story behind nine sets of entrepreneurs who appeared on the show to ask the panel of "sharks" to invest in their companie.

Author Michael Parrish DuDell gives us stories of successes and failures, and emphasizes the "lessons" to be learned from each entrepreneur's experience.  Frankly, I liked learning about the problems and mistakes most, because those are rarely shown even when "Shark Tank" does an update on a particular business.

You get some view behind the scenes of the show, but I would have liked more on that element.

DuDell offers a kind of "rah-rah," let's-root-for-this-entrepreneur perspective. At one point, referring to a problems faced by one entrepreneur, he writes, "instead of backing down she doubled down." The writing is adequate, but don't expect anything too deep.


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